PJM alumnus Michael Totten, who frequently parachutes in to report on repressive regimes, visits a place where domestic spying is all-pervasive. Where a cult of personality has formed around the national leader. Where reporters are routinely harassed, and sometimes even thrown in jail, and the state-run media is pure propaganda. Where private property is seemingly forbidden, especially the personal ownership of firearms. Where socialized medicine is the law of the land. Where truth is the rarest commodity of all.
Washington DC in the age of Obama? No, believe it or not, even worse — Cuba:
“Cuba is gorgeous,” said my journalist pal Terry Glavin up in British Columbia when I told him where I was going. “Although I expect it’s gone to s*** in some respects since I was there. The regime is that much more decrepit with the absence of Daddy Warbucks in Moscow. The things you will most love about Cuba, I bet, are the Cubans and the ravaged beauty of the place. I can’t imagine any people on earth putting up with such bulls*** with as much grace and humor and decency as the Cubans have managed, God love ‘em. Were it not for the regime I’d happily live in Havana.”
The Cubans do seem to handle it well, though I have no idea how. “You would make a fortune,” writes Havana-based journalist Mark Frank in his book Cuban Revelations, “if you could patent as an antidepressant whatever brain chemical kept the Cubans’ spirits up through the hard times.”
I wonder, though, how much of it’s real. Val Prieto warned me that to an extent it is not. “You will most likely see many smiling faces while you’re there,” he said. “Lots of laughter and dancing, too. But there will always be something much more profound behind all the smiles and laughter. Every Cuban, regardless of how content they may appear, lives with two underlying things—sadness and fear, the latter being more prevalent. Most Cubans will not openly display it as you are a foreigner, but read between the lines when they speak to you.”
I know what it’s like to wear a false face. Not only did I have to lie at the airport, I had to conceal my identity from every single person I met in the country, including other Americans, lest someone say the wrong thing about me in public in front of the wrong person at the wrong time. I vowed to myself before I even left the United States that I wouldn’t tell a single human being in Cuba who I am or what I was doing no matter how much I felt like I trusted them. I hated having to do that, and I felt a little self-loathing because of it, but I had to be careful and consoled myself with the fact that I could be honest about everything later in writing.
Likewise I have little choice but to conceal the identities of many people I spoke to. Occasionally I can quote Cubans by name—especially if they’re in exile—but for the most part I can’t. Those on the island had no idea they were speaking to a journalist and that I might quote them, and I won’t risk their safety.
However, I will tell you this much: None of the Cubans I quote are high profile dissidents except when I cite what they’ve written for public consumption. Those who aren’t in prison live under total surveillance. The regime posts guards outside their houses and points cameras at their windows and doors. I’ve been told by reliable sources that state security agents will sometimes commandeer next-door apartments and houses to tighten the screws even more. If I were to walk into that kind of surveillance umbrella, there’s virtually no chance I’d get in and out without being questioned and tailed, and there was a strong chance I’d be arrested.
Read the whole thing.